May 20, 2010

By Neil Amato, Special to

WILMINGTON, N.C. -- Purdue has not been in this position before. The Boilermakers' women's golf team only acts as if it has.

Coach Devon Brouse's team shot a smooth round Thursday, finishing strong and confident to overtake Southern California after three rounds of the NCAA Championships at the Country Club of Landfall.

With the setting sun-a welcome sight after Wednesday's lightning and rain-casting a pink glow behind him, Brouse talked about how he wanted his team to forget about Wednesday's tough round and instead put themselves in position to win the school's first team title in golf.

"I think the conversation was, 'every team and every player here is going to have one round of the four rounds that they're not very happy with,' " Brouse said. "'Let's just say today was our round, 6-over, and let's go to work tomorrow.'"

The Boilermakers went to work right away, recording five birdies on the first two holes. They quickly took the lead on USC, the leader after each of the first two rounds, then added to the advantage late with a strong 18th hole.

On that hole alone, the Boilermakers had four birdies and an eagle. One birdie didn't count, of course, as only the top four rounds are computed for the team total.

To win an NCAA title, "you gotta have all five of them clicking," Brouse said.

The Boilermakers did just that. Each round that counted in the scores was 1-under-par or better. That's how Purdue shot 8-under 280, turning an eight-shot second-round deficit into a seven-shot lead. Purdue is at 6-under 858 after three rounds.

The 280 was the lowest round so far in the tournament and one of two under par Thursday.

Southern Cal seemed ready to go under par again, but Coach Andrea Gaston's team had what she called a "gut-wrenching" day. Freshman Cyna Rodriguez, who had been 4-under through two rounds, struggled to an 83. Gaston said it was her welcome-to-college-golf moment. But Gaston also said she had confidence that Rodriguez and others could come back strong.

"We were just trying to keep them fighting, rallying and trying to win a tournament," Gaston said. "You're gonna have days like this sometimes. ... I know this team never gave in. That's what I love."

Purdue was led by Maude-Aimee LeBlanc, who is just three shots off the individual lead, where she is tied with USC standout Jennifer Song. But LeBlanc had help. Numa Gulyanamitta eagled 18 and shot 2-under 70 for a three-round total of 4-under 212. Laura Gonzalez-Escallon shot 69. She added to the birdie binge on 18.

"This last hole, you gotta play it, and we played it well today," Brouse said.

Arizona State's Jennifer Johnson also finished strong, making birdie on No. 18 to maintain a slim lead in the individual championship. Caroline Hedwall of Oklahoma State shot 4-under 68, despite a bogey on her final hole, to draw within a shot of Johnson, a freshman who has had at least a share of the lead since the first round.

Johnson (9-under 207) and Hedwall are the only two players to shoot three rounds under par in the tournament, but they approach the game in different ways.

Hedwall unleashed a slew of birdies early on the back nine, then delivered a string of Swedish words that might not have been family-friendly after that last-hole bogey.

Johnson plays relatively bogey-free and is about as low-key as they come, offering up this understatement, with 18 holes remaining: "It's been a great week so far."

Johnson's team remains in contention, tied with Alabama at 13 shots back. One reason the Sun Devils are hanging on in the team competition was the rally by Giulia Molinaro. She put three balls in the water on the par-3 second hole and finished with a 10. Yet, she played the final 16 holes in 2-under, finishing with an eagle on No. 18.

"It was just, thank God it was the second hole and not the 17th," Molinaro said. "Because you know you still have a lot of holes to recover. I just tried to finish the way I would have liked to start."